Urban Asceticism

In the early mornings there is a beautiful stillness to the city.  When the sun begins to steal the stars from the sky, and the moon is soft and translucent, the clouds begin to turn golden, and the eyes accustom to the new day.   And still, it is quite.  Every creature in the city is trying to get the last hour or so of sleep.  Even the cats and even some birds on the city streets, maybe opening their eyes for a brief moment, go back to the world of dreams and slumber.

But I enjoy watching this strange and eternal phenomenon.  How pleasant it is, when the sun begins to coat the buildings, and the yellow rays fall and begin to warm the streets and the roofs.  There is still a chill to the air and the here and there you begin to hear the sounds of several people coming back to the world.

This is how I usually start my day.  There is a peculiar spirituality to it.   And recently I began to wonder over how does one who is somewhat secular, and who tries to attain whatever knowledge can be gained in a fast and busy life, attain a certain spirituality in a large city where a sense of bliss and silence only lasts a few moments in the minutes of the dawn.

They say that asceticism is a way towards enlightenment.  Most ascetics who choose this path seek seclusion from the outside world.  In seclusion, around nature, one is closer with the spirit and the earth.  But how does one stay an ascetic in such a world as New York City?  All around us there is the commercial world, which even if avoiding all of its commodities, one is still subjected to the vision of advertisements instead of rivers and forests.   How can one become closer to nature when the world is so barren of it, and is given instead to the sounds of fabrication?

There have been a few who silently struggled through such man-made arenas.  Perhaps the best example could be of Gopi Krishna, who while living in a busy Indian city sought meditation in the early mornings until awakening Kundalini.   But he was far from an escatic and a hermit – and Kundalini in general is a dangerous exercise.

I began researching the idea of urban asceticism.  There is something immensely spiritual and beautiful about it.  The beauty is found in the strength of the human will.  One must look at asceticism not as a method of self-denial and a bleak and bitter existence.   One must look at asceticism as a beautiful method of self-control, through which the mind can gain strength over the body and the pleasures and desires, which in the end, only bring upon suffering.   Within this type of framework there is nothing beyond this spirituality then the need to attain a higher understanding of one’s-self – of understanding the individual possibilities that lay within the mind.

In my research I came across several fascinating individuals of the past, who trying to gain wisdom, became great ascetics.   Perhaps the most inspiring and intriguing would be Simeon Stylites, who in the 5th century spent 37 years atop a pillar, or a stylite.  It is said that he endured the extreme conditions of terrible summer heat and unbearable winter cold, until his foot succumbed to gangrene.   Simeon died atop that pillar, and afterwards became a saint.

There is something beautiful and at the same time terrible about such a man, who seeing his own body decay before him, enduring excruciating pain, stayed so focused and committed to whatever it was he was trying to attain.  Such men are rare in this world.

But some might look upon this strange form of extreme asceticism and wonder what the point to such an existence is.  If Simeon was doing this for God, wouldn’t God wish to see his servant be not in pain but in joy?  Would the kind God not wish to see his creation live a long and beautiful life?

It is at this point that we come at the crossroads of joy and beauty.  To Simeon there was incredible beauty to the rotting flesh from atonement.  And the suffering through harsh rains, windstorms, freezing limbs, these things too were beautiful.  The beauty lay in the devotion, and the assertion that there is greatness beyond pain – that beyond the physical there is a grand existence of happiness and bliss – and that while the body suffers, the soul enlightens.

Other examples of asceticism and works of “self-crucification,” mortification, self-denial, can be found in almost every society all over the world.  It is believed that the Brahmans of early India, who were mainly reclusive ascetics, played a fundamental role in the development of Hinduism.   Goutama Buddha himself lived a life of an extreme ascetic before finding enlightenment.  The many tales of Jesus Christ can reveal that he lived an ascetic life.

These people practiced an intense mental and physical discipline, and from that discipline they found new ways to understand the world, and especially themselves.  They projected a wisdom upon society that has outlasted empires and civilizations.   There has to be some sort of unveiling of truth in the midst of self-denial.  Today’s ascetics are scattered in far and hidden regions of the world – monasteries and hermitages, caves, church towers, and unmapped deserts, beneath the glory of the stars.

But coming back to the original question – how does one try and perhaps experiment with such an interesting idea.  Some have hinted that modern philosophies known as Hardline Straight Edge is a form of urban asceticism – in which the person abstains from recreational drugs and sex.  But such a person would be an ascetic if it is believed that drugs and sex are actually pleasurable activities, which the person is purposely denying one’s-self of in order to gain higher control.   If a person does not like drugs and sex as an individual choice, or let’s say someone that has never had drugs or sex and has no desire to, is such a person a modern urban ascetic?

These answers are obvious – and abstaining from recreational drugs and sex is a fundamental rule of many religions altogether, and does not qualify as a mandate of living an ascetic lifestyle.

Modern urban asceticism would be a man or woman who chooses to purposefully abstain from the things that hinder the mind from control over the body.  This is perhaps where the idea and the role of ritual come into effect.  One would have to be able to commit to a ritualistic method of observing ones asceticism – of somehow letting the mind and the body know of its function, and therefore continuing with it daily.

Also, in asceticism there is a very important function that does not exist in simply self-denial.  This function is of developing a selfless soul, heart, and mind.  It is of doing for others, and not one’s-self.  Many ancient ascetics chose to pray for the world and the ones they knew – this is true of many Christian monastic orders today.  Ascetics such as those that adhered to the philosophies of Marxism and Anarchism – that is living a very barren revolutionary life, for the benefit of mankind.  Or, for example, modern vegans, who choose to deprive themselves of the pleasures of meats, dairy, and other animal products, for the plight of other living creatures.

Perhaps the best example of urban ascetics would be the monks of the Carthusian Order, founded by St. Bruno of Cologne.  The Carthusian’s lead an extremely ascetic life, withdrawn from the outside world, yet they are a monastic group, and like all Christian monastic groups they live in a community.   Perhaps one of the main tenants of the Carthusians is that they melt both hermit-living with community.   It is often seen as a paradox.  But it works, has been working for over one thousand years.  Most of the monks spend over 13 hours in solitude, eating and praying in silence in small cells.

Today there are many people in urban settings who live by ascetic principles.  One can see immigrant workers, who live in incredibly small quarters, often on one meal a day, and work long and brutal hours, as modern ascetics.  But unfortunately they wouldn’t classify as such because they are not “willing” ascetics.  That is, they do not purposely lead lives of hardship.   Just as one would not classify the military as an ascetic living environment, because the willingness is not in the deprivation of certain pleasures, but merely a certain stage in life, or other forms.  Of course it could be argued that some do in fact join the military to lead such a life.    The same argument can be made of prison life.



~ by alexmalina on January 31, 2009.

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